Review of New York Sports

Norwood, Stephen H., Ed. New York Sports: Glamour and Grit in the Empire City. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2018. Pp. viii+425. Notes, Contributors, Index. $27.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Ari de Wilde and Melvin L. Adelman 

ny sports

The University of Arkansas Press, 2018

New York Sports: Glamour and Grit in the Empire City is another work in the Sport, Culture & Society series of the University of Arkansas Press, which through a collection of essays offer an examination of different dimensions of sport in a particular city. In this iteration, its editor Stephen Norwood brings together an impressive array of sport scholars to illuminate various themes and topics – from popular sport to ethnicity, from popular places and people to sporting spaces on the turf and streets – in what has always been the sports capital of America. In constructing their respective vignettes, many of the authors draw on their previous writings, and as a result their works hardly break new grounds in the areas they explore. This is not surprising as these types of collections are rarely designed to do so, but this does not detract from the quality of the essays that we find here. Albeit obviously to different degrees, the respective narratives are interesting and informative, well-written and well-grounded in primary and secondary sources.

The positive character of the collection is evident in the initial piece as Steven Riess examines the glory years of the Yankees and Dodgers with Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Branch Rickey in a Dickensian tale—as the best of time with racial integration of professional baseball in Brooklyn to the lows of the moving of the Dodgers and Giants in 1957.  In his usual detailed manner, Riess investigates a variety of themes as he compares the fan base of the two teams, their respective administrative structure, the financial side of these two profitable teams and the star centerfielders in New York. Henry Fetter follows Riess as he explores why New Yorkers continued to worship the Brooklyn Dodgers long after it moved west but have mostly forgotten the New York Giants. Fetter places the differing visions within the context of the relocation of the franchises and how the teams were presented in their new cities, but he is more on the mark when he links these variations to their respective histories. Fetter rightfully notes that while the Dodgers’ last decade in New York represented the team’s best years ever, for the Giants the glory days were decades earlier when during the McGraw era they ruled baseball. Unfortunately, Fetter does not fully flesh out the implication that the Giants’ heyday was roughly 40 years earlier, that by the mid-1920s they were no longer the dominant club in New York and by the mid-20th century not even the preeminent National League team in New York and at a time when the two teams in one city model, the prevalent structure of MLB since the start of the twentieth century, began to collapse.

In this piece Fetter also re-raises his previous scholarship where he challenges the revisionist literature on who was responsible for the Dodgers-Giants move west. Here he presents Giant owner Horace Stoneham as Walter O’Malley’s willing lackey as he passively follows his Dodgers counterpart west even though his team was still profitable largely as result of TV money. Fetter’s perspective, however, has its limitations; one of which is that he does not contextualize Stoneham’s decision within the team’s fortunes in the two decades prior to its westward movement.  In these 20 years, the once mighty Giants became basically a second division team finishing 15 times at least 10 games out of first place.  Of the other five occasions, four occurred in the early 1950s but even in each of these years attendance did not exceed immediate post World War II highs and the club reported losses for all these years except for 1954 when as World Champions it claimed profits of nearly $400,000.  Were these years a foreshadowing of a return to glory or simply an interlude before a return to the recent past? The next three years indicated that it was the latter as the Giants were never closer than 18 games out of first place, attendance declined by nearly 50 percent and profits  dwindled by nearly 80 percent. Fetter also neglects to account for simultaneous with the Giants’ backslide, the NFL pressured the football Giants to relocate after the 1955 season from the run down Polo Grounds to the more spacious Yankee Stadium, a move which cost Stoneham roughly $75,000 annually in additional income.

Several other pieces in the collection look at popular sports. Stephen Norwood once again examines how professional football in the 1950s reflected and symbolized Cold War hostilities and notions of manhood and expanding anxiety over an increasing consumer society, with it giving vent to instant gratification.  More interesting is his discussion of the leading role the New York football Giants played between 1956 and 1963 in pro football displacement of baseball as the nation’s premier sport. Norwood is particularly insightful in the importance he attaches to the 1956 championship contest between the Giants and the Bears, but he would have sharpened his analysis if he had connected the new found position of the Giants in the hierarchy of New York sport to the nearly simultaneous Dodgers-Giants movement west. Eunice Pollack also explores the intersection between pro football and masculinity through the lens of Joe Namath as a player both on and off the field. Pollack generally transverses familiar ground in her presentation of the star quarterback as a celebrity in a celebrity-conscious town and as the rebel who challenged traditional manhood in a  multitude of ways, but her work is innovative, interesting, and informative when she discuss him as the sexualized athlete comparable to rock stars and movie stars such as Jean Paul Belmont. While Pollack does a nice job connecting this theme to shifts in cultural mores during the late 60s and 1970s, a more expansive discussion of the linkage would have been beneficial. Dennis Gildea shifts the focus from the gridiron to the City Game as he chronicles basketball’s journey in Gotham from the end of the nineteenth century to the present.  To cover this expansive period, Gildea offers a variety of vignettes, as he looks at the sport’s emergence in New York’s YMCAs and settlement houses;  how Ned Irish’s college double headers in the 1930s gave a significant boost to the growth of collegiate basketball and he offers a quick look at the basketball scandals. We get glimpses of the professional side with the formation of the New York Knickerbockers and the NBA by the late 1940s, the famous Ruckers tournament and even a few columns on women’s basketball.  The hit and miss style is hardly conducive for deep analysis but Gildea’s work has its moment, none more than his interesting discussion of the differing fates of two gifted city high school players of the 1960s, Lou Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabber) and Earl “the Goat” Manigault.

Several essays examine the theme of ethnicity and sport. Gerald Gems looks at how sport provided diverse Italian immigrants with a road to Americanization and how sports and Italian sporting stars (most notably Joe DiMaggio) helped create a distinctive Italian-American culture. In the only piece devoted exclusively to women, Linda Borish explores how a variety of Jewish institutions provided sporting experiences which “fostered a community and ethnic identity for young Jewish women and the ways gender and ethnicity shaped the types of sports deemed appropriate for them” (p.293). In one of the collection’s more original pieces, Jeffrey Gurock extends his previous research on Jews and sport as he uses the case of  CCNY to illuminate the heyday of Jewish sport in the Empire City. Similar to other sport scholars who have written about CCNY, Gurock  articulates how its incredible success on the hardwood “countered some of the antisemitic canards of the day” (p. 293), but he goes on to paint a richer portrait of CCNY sport as he looks at how the campus gave full-throated support to the boycott movement of the 1936 Olympics and offers insights into Jewish involvement in other sports. Yet by the early 1950s, Gurock notes the “long-enduring palpable bond between the students on this overwhelmingly Jewish campus and its predominantly Jewish athletes ended” (p.269). The devastating consequence of the 1951 Scandal played a critical role, but Gurock accurately points out that Jewish success in the sports arena “were no longer seen as proving important points about their people’s place and status in the United States” (p.275).

Several essays revolve around the theme of sporting spaces. Robert Trumpbour transverses familiar terrain as he offers an in-depth exploration of the multiple ballparks that existed in Gotham from the 1860s to the construction of Yankee Stadium in 1923.  Trumpbour coherently reveals the intersection between ballpark construction and the city’s expanding population, the commercialization of the sport (of which it  was both cause and effect), the influence of baseball’s trade wars and the political connections often required to make the needed real estate deals.  George Kirsch examines the triumph and struggles of municipal golf in post 1960 New York. Kirsch follows the effort to gain access to the Olmsteadian “lungs of the city,” i.e. the city parks and golfers eventual triumph in doing so at Van Courtland Park. As WASP country clubs excluded many, municipal parks played a critical role, as Kirsch correctly asserts, in providing greater access for the masses and the democratization of the sport. Maureen Smith’s piece on the only sporting event to take place in each of the city’s five boroughs, the New York Marathon, was a most enjoyable read. Smith illuminates how Fred Lebow’s business acumen took the New York Marathon from a looped Central Park affair with hundreds of runners to the dominant 50,000+ participant Fall marathon in the United States, takes note of how the success of Grete Waltz, “had a tremendous impact on the growth of the marathon for women, both elite and women interested in running for fun and personal challenge” (p.178), and how by the 1980s the race became increasingly commercialized as it sought to attract top notch runners. Whereas Smith’s piece takes us all around the town,  Mike Silver looks at the “unforgettable Stillman’s Gym,” which he argues represents—“Boxing in Olde New York.” The gym operated from 1921 to 1961–coinciding perfectly with the multi-ethnic golden age of boxing and which provided for one of the “greatest shows in town” and where for about the price of a cup of coffee a fan could observe some of the best boxers prepare for a forthcoming fight, evaluate the upcoming talent, and connect to the boxing community.

Finally, two essays particularly stand out because they break new ground. Bennet Liebman and Henry D. Fetter insightfully examine the effort to elevate the status of the Belmont Stakes, which as late as the immediate post World War II era did not enjoy the recognition and respect it deserved from its organizers and racing community when compared to its Triple Crown counterparts. The authors narrate the effort of Joe Palmer, the New York Herald Tribune’s acclaimed horse racing columnist, to make the Belmont Stakes more than just the sixth race of the day and his insistence that the Belmont needed an introductory song, similar to that found at the Derby and Preakness, to command its rightful place in the horse racing hierarchy.  Despite the adoption of “East Side, West Side,” as the Belmont’s anthem by the mid-1950s, Liebman and Fetter explicate how and why Palmer’s hopes for the Stake race came up short in the subsequent decades as they point to the role of the rise of other spectator sports, shifts in masculine sporting culture, and a horse racing’s decline in New York as a spectator sport largely due to off-track betting. By the 1990s, declining attendance led the New York Racing Association to replace the “Sidewalks” with “New York, New York” (mainly the Sinatra version) in an effort to attract younger fans, to give the race the ballyhoo it merited, and sprout “a Big Apple boosterism about Gotham” (p.205). Daniel Nathan offers a most enjoyable look into a New York icon, “Toots Shor,” and his restaurant/saloon, which Nathan beautifully describes as “a quasi-public, largely homosocial space that hosted nocturnal, bacchanalian displays of hegemonic masculinity and extreme friendship for years” before and after World War II (p. 330). Nathan provides us with an interesting tour of the country’s unofficial sports headquarters, where leading figures from the world of sports and entertainment, politicians, writers and journalist met and where the booze flowed freely and the multiple intersections taking place “created a synergistic cultural buzz that resonated” (p.342) far beyond its physical setting. Nathan also provides a thoughtful look into Shor himself, an American original, who did not mean one thing but instead was “Whitmanesque in that he was large and contained and entertained multitudes” (p. 343).

The  collection is extensive in its breadth and depth of New York sports. Still there are topics that are absent. Interestingly, while the cover shows the iconic picture of Willie Mays playing stickball with kids in Harlem after a day game at the Polo Grounds, there is nothing on the multiple street games that gave a vibrancy to the city. One could also state that there was a comparative dearth of discussion of women sporting activities. In addition, what about other larger-than-life showman such as P.T. Barnum or “Tex” Richards, or discussion of New York City’s famed vicious amusements, such as ratting pits?  Given New York’s vibrant sporting culture we recognize that there is only room for so much and the nearly  425 page collection was close to the limit of what most publishers or readers will accept. Moreover, what is here does a quality job in representing New York sports. Popular and scholarly readers will find the book a worthy addition to their collections.

Ari de Wilde is an Associate Professor of Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. He studies sport and business history. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Sport History, Journal of Macromarketing and the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing among other journals. He can be reached at dewildea@easternct.edu and on Twitter @aodewilde.

Melvin L. Adelman is Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University. He is the author of the founding title, A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820-70, in the University of Illinois Press’ famed Sport and Society series. He can be reached at melvinadelman@gmail.com.

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